Leisure World designer moves in

SocialTwist Tell-a-Friend
Barbara Ruben

Fifty years ago, architect Harold Navy helped design the original buildings of Leisure World. Now, he lives in the community of nearly 9,000 residents in Silver Spring, Md. As a principal in Washington’s first African American-owned architectural firm, he designed Metro stops, Howard University’s business school, and worked on projects built overseas from Afghanistan to Haiti.
Photo by Rey Lopez

Back in the mid-1960s, upper Georgia Avenue was a two-lane road heading into farmland in Montgomery County, Md. But a 610-acre plot of farmland abutting the road  — carved out of the area between Aspen Hill and Olney — was about to become one of the largest retirement communities of its day in the U.S.

Harold Navy, just a few years out of architecture school at Howard University, was one of a cadre of architects drafting what would become Leisure World’s first townhouses, clubhouse and other structures when it opened in September 1966.

“It was a concept completely new to the area, a community of senior citizens. I thought there would be a bunch of old people coming here, and never once thought about how one day I’d be old enough to be here,” said Navy, 81, who moved into one of Leisure World’s high-rise condominiums two years ago with Arlillian, his wife of nearly 60 years.

Trees that were saplings when the first of what are now 8,700 residents moved in now tower over some of the curving walking paths that Navy helped plan.

“We added sidewalks and ramps, all kinds of designs to encourage walking. Benches and parks where residents could sit and talk to each other. Landscaping with trees where they would feel comfortable being outside,” recalled Navy from his ninth floor condo, which overlooks the golf course where he and his colleagues would play a round after work during Leisure World’s early days.

Breaking barriers

Even though he was designing Leisure World, Navy noted that, as an African American, he likely would not have been welcome to live there when it first opened, had he been old enough.

Navy has been facing and breaking color barriers his whole life. Growing up in Houston, Texas, he went to segregated schools. There, he often would trace words and photos in the newspaper to hone his drawing skills.

“I developed quite an artistic hand and ended up being quite talented with drawing. When I went to high school, a teacher started a program of architectural and mechanical drafting,” Navy said. “I liked it, and he liked me. He motivated me and mentored me all the way through. At that time I was thinking of dentistry. But he motivated me to go into architecture. Even today I’m very happy I did.”

When he realized he would not be allowed to enter the architecture program at the segregated University of Texas, he won a scholarship that allowed him to attend Howard University in Washington, D.C. After finishing its five-year architecture program, he got ready to return to Houston in 1959.

“But Houston was not ready for black architects. I don’t think any part of Texas was. I started trying to seek employment in Houston, but they wanted to pay me less than they paid the janitors,” Navy recalled.

So he stayed in Washington and started work at a Silver Spring firm that, a few years later, would land the account to design Leisure World. He and Arlillian, who worked in education and then at the upper levels of real estate companies, found a house in an enclave of mid-century modern homes with enormous windows designed by renowned architect Charles Goodman.

The only problem was that, in the years just before the Fair Housing Act of 1968 passed, the Silver Spring community didn’t allow blacks. The Navys had to petition the neighbors to let them in. Navy remembers them being “very accepting” though, and that the neighborhood was filled with other architects and artists.

But their housing problems didn’t end there. Housing discrimination extended to mortgages, and the Navys were unable to find financing. Navy’s boss stepped in and lent them the money.

Designing buildings near and far

After honing his skills for a decade — including helping draft the first buildings for the planned community of Columbia, Md. — Navy opened Washington, D.C.’s first African American-owned architecture firm together with two other Howard University graduates.

At the firm, Navy, Marshall & Gordon, he worked for three decades on a variety of projects that stretched from Washington to Afghanistan.

Navy helped design several Metro stops, including Glenmont at the end of the Red Line, just three miles down Georgia Avenue from Leisure World. He also designed the Hyatt Hotel and plaza in downtown Bethesda and the Howard University School of Business.

Internationally, his firm designed a women’s dormitory in Afghanistan, an agricultural college in Guinea, West Africa, and housing in Haiti, working under contracts with the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Navy said the project that had the most meaning for him was designing a medical clinic in Jackson, Miss., in the 1970s that brought healthcare to an underserved black community. His work there went beyond architectural blueprints.

“We created a bus service system that would go out in the community and country and bring them in, as well as a cafeteria. It worked extremely well,” Navy said. “It was one of the examples of rural medical care for the whole United States. I was proud.

“That made me happier than most [projects] because I could see it from beginning to end. Seeing how bad off people were, we could see we made a big difference to the community, so we were very happy with that.”

Honoring MLK

Another project that Navy is proud of is his role in creating the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial near the National Mall.

Navy was a member of the same national black fraternity as King, Alpha Phi Alpha. Navy and a half dozen other local fraternity members worked for 20 years to get the Memorial built — getting permission, garnering Congressional support, and raising funds for the $120 million granite memorial that opened in 2011.

“We had never had a black man honored on the Mall. This was a man of our generation, a great man, and despite various setbacks [including initially being told the memorial would be on U Street rather than the Mall], it was so gratifying that we were able to honor him in this way,” said Navy, who is the only member of the memorial’s originators still living.

Navy is also one of only two of Leisure World’s first architects remaining. That he is now one of the community’s nearly 9,000 residents is important, said Marian Altman, president of the Leisure World Foundation and a 15-year resident.

She and the foundation recently published a book on the occasion of Leisure World’s 50th anniversary. “It was very difficult for any of us to find any documentation [regarding its creation], and the documentation we did find was scattered everywhere. Having Harold Navy as a resource was invaluable,” she said.

Altman recalled her first visit to Leisure World in 1970 with a boss when she was 25 years old. “There were no mature trees, they were all just planted with the community. And everybody drove golf carts like the Jetsons,” she said.

Besides the condos and single-level homes, she noticed a number of townhouses. They possessed certain accessibility features, such as lower light switches and countertops for residents in wheelchairs, but no elevators.

When she met with Navy years later, while putting together the anniversary book, she asked him why the townhouses had so many steps if they were meant to be accessible?

Navy really didn’t have an answer. He said that the architects wanted to make sure the houses would be as comfortable and accommodating as possible for seniors. Perhaps financial realities kept them from being truly accessible.

For Kevin B. Flannery, Leisure World’s CEO and general manager, the original design of the community has stood the test of time — to a point.

“When I look at some of the literature from when they were first promoting and selling the community, it was very much framed in the context of retirement at this age of 55 which, 50 years ago, was the target date.

“The operations of the community were built on providing things like clubhouses and the swimming pool, and staffing it with maintenance people, this whole carefree type of community.”

Today, the average age of residents is about 72, and 10 to 15 percent of them still work, Flannery said. And while the amenities still draw residents, what they want is changing. For example, Leisure World is currently doing a $2 million renovation to one of its buildings to create a new fitness center — something that wasn’t even part of the lexicon 50 years ago.

As for the Navys, the couple thought about moving south after retirement, but all their friends, doctors and church were in Maryland, as well as a daughter.

“There are so many amenities [here], it’s near shopping, and we wouldn’t have to leave our neighbors and friends,” Navy said. 

He’s even joined the Buildings and Grounds Committee to oversee and improve the community — and keep an eye on what he helped create half a century ago.